The Way We Work Now

On this Labor Day, Robert Siegel talks to Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, about how Americans actually labor at work. Carnevale says that though standing, lifting and carrying are required less at our jobs, one physical skill that's gone up is near vision.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. And on this Labor Day, we take a few minutes now to think about work and how we describe it. When I was a little kid, I remember seeing "Snow White" at the movie theater, and the Seven Dwarfs were really happy about going to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SNOW WHITE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Heigh ho. Heigh ho. It's home from work we go...

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SNOW WHITE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Heigh ho. Heigh ho...

SIEGEL: It took me a few years to figure out that those seven little guys were swinging pickaxes in a diamond mine - just about as physically demanding, difficult and dangerous a job as you could imagine. Many decades after the Disney original, Tom Waits covered that tune with a considerably more jaundiced view of physical labor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEIGH HO")

TOM WAITS: (Singing) Heigh ho. Heigh ho. It's off to work we go...

SIEGEL: Over the past several decades, the job of being a miner has become a lot less common. In 1937, when "Snow White" came out, it was what 1.6 million Americans did. Today, in a labor force of almost 150 million, there are just 360,000 miners. In fact, there are fewer and fewer Americans whose work demands physical strength and exertion. What does work demand? Well, we asked four people in Washington who were out having lunch the other day. Stacey Monroe, who's an executive assistant, does what I do most of the day: She sits at a computer keyboard.

STACEY MONROE: I am definitely sitting in front of the computer 90 percent of the time. But that other 10 percent is a lot of physical running...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONROE: ...through my office to track down my boss, to tell him he's late for a meeting...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONROE: ...or that he has a phone call.

CHRISTINE HART: My name is Christine Hart, and I am a cashier. In my position, I would say I interact with people a lot, especially because I work at a higher-end, sort of typical retail store. You ask people, you know, where they're from, what convention they're in town for, you know, how their day is going so far. So that's probably the most enjoyable part of the job, the small talk.

GEORGE STENY: My name is George Steny(ph), and I'm a maintenance laborer. And I go around to every park and pick up all the trash. Then, I've got to go to the park, come back to the truck, lift the trash and do all of that. That's a lot of walking, a lot of picking up the trash, too, at the same time. And there'll be a lot of trash.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL CANARD: My name is Michael Canard, and I'm a fire review specialist at a law firm. It gets boring. Ninety-five percent of your job is done in a sitting position. You naturally want to stretch your legs. But if you are not producing, you will not last. So it is required of me that I sit here all day long, and that's it.

SIEGEL: Listen to people describe what they do at work, and our occupations start falling into much bigger categories than the conventional ones. Do we work indoors or outdoors, standing or sitting? I spoke with Tony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. How many of us go to work and stare at a computer?

ANTHONY CARNEVALE: Those of us who literally stare all day long at a computer screen are about 15 percent of our jobs. Those are people who do data input and key functions and data processing. The rest of us - it has come to be more than half of us now, look at a computer screen for at least part of the day, and do our work looking into a computer.

SIEGEL: Another thing about what I do at work, I sit at my desk. I come into the studio. I sit in the studio. How many of us sit at work? How many of us stand up?

CARNEVALE: There are still lots of jobs where people stand all day. That is one of the things that has declined but declined more slowly. Our sense is it's about 30 percent. A lot of those people make very good money and have good jobs. Pharmacists are very highly paid workers.

SIEGEL: And they're on their feet all day.

And they're on their feet all day.

Your center has looked over data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I gather, that has described what kind of skills are required for how many jobs out there. And they're not the same skills that our grandparents assumed you would need for jobs.

CARNEVALE: The United States Department of Labor has done something unique that other nations don't do - which is for a very long time, use industrial psychologists to track what people actually do at work. The fundamental shift that that data shows us is a shift from physical skill to skill that has more to do with cognitive function, and more to do with interacting with other people.

SIEGEL: Yeah. There's one skill you write about, which is now required far more in work. It is the skill of near vision. What is near vision, and how much more common is it that it's required at work?

CARNEVALE: One of the more interesting findings in this data is that the physical skill - the sensory skill, as they call it - that has actually increased in its role at work for almost - it covers almost 70 percent of Americans, in some degree or other - is seeing things within a foot or two. What that reflects, we find, when we go deeper in the data, is the computer in front of your own face.

SIEGEL: If I can see the computer and read it, and I'm good at that, that's a major skill in the workforce today.

Yeah. And there are ancillary skills that are less important, associated with the computer. The ability to handle glare from a screen is now a common occupational injury and a skill.

You find now that near vision is an important skill in about 70 percent of the workforce?

In all or in part, for at least 30 percent of the tasks in jobs, for about 70 percent of the workforce - yes.

On the other hand, here's a competency that is less necessary: physical coordination.

CARNEVALE: The day when you had to coordinate hand to eye and other body parts, really. Oftentimes in the industrial world, you used lots of limbs in order to operate machinery and to move between machines. That skill has declined appreciably. It's gone from a pretty solid 30 percent of the workforce in the late '60s down to less than 8 percent of the workforce require that, in substantial part, in their job.

SIEGEL: One of the competencies that is now much more important than it was back in the 1970s is something called active listening. Not just listening, but active listening. What does that mean?

CARNEVALE: The difference between listening and active listening is what your wife or a partner or a friend will always tell you you don't do, which is to hear what they say and act on it; that is, to incorporate what they're telling you into your behaviors.

SIEGEL: But this is a skill that the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds is important in 75 percent of jobs, which is not that surprising to me, but that's up from 50 percent back in the 1970s. What were people doing at work back in the 1970s?

CARNEVALE: People in those days worked shoulder to shoulder, and not face to face. And they were looking at the machine. There are very few of us now who don't spend time listening to each other to get our work done. And when we don't hear well or don't listen well, it makes us ineffective.

SIEGEL: How may of us do the physical, perhaps menial labor that actually involves lugging things, shoveling things; you know, pushing dumpsters full of things from one place to another?

CARNEVALE: That work, in substantial part, tends to be more and more one of the tasks in a declining share of the tasks for people. But there are still a good 15 to 20 percent of the workforce that's lifting and carrying and moving things around.

SIEGEL: So work, increasingly, on this Labor Day - as we think about what work is - is something that is varied. It's relatively cerebral compared with years past. It has to do with the miracle machine on our desks or in our bags - the computer. It's not at all physical. I mean, we can be weaklings and klutzes, and do the work just as well as the next guy.

CARNEVALE: It is counterintuitive for many of us who were born and lived during the great manufacturing era. The physical making of things has declined in value. And the value added comes from cerebral functions - from design, from communication, from meeting very explicit social needs. Google never invented a thing. It invented a way for people to deal with each other.

SIEGEL: Well, Tony Carnevale, thanks a lot for talking with us on this Labor Day, about labor.

Happy Labor Day.

Tony Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: